Playoff hockey returned to the War Memorial Arena on Wednesday night when the Syracuse Crunch hosted the St. John’s IceCaps in game three of the opening round of the Calder Cup playoffs. The atmosphere in the stands was electric and the energy on the ice embodied post-season hockey perfectly.
The IceCaps came out buzzing early in the first period but Crunch starting goaltender Mike McKenna was sharp and kept them off the board. Instead, it would be Syracuse finding the back of the net at 11:30 of the first courtesy of Joel Vermin. Henri Ikonen sent a pass towards the bottom of the left-wing circle where rookie forward Brett Howden redirected the puck between his legs and to a cutting Vermin to take the 1-to-0 lead.
“The first five or ten minutes, I didn’t think we were great,” Crunch captain Erik Condra said. “And then we ended up getting a goal by the fourth line, which was huge. Depth scoring is always what you need in the playoffs.”
Moments later, it was the Crunch captain extending the lead to two goals. Condra set up shop at the top of right circle, collected a pass from Tye McGinn, wound up, and rocketed a shot through IceCaps stating goalie Charlie Lindgren’s five-hole. The league’s Eddie Shore award winner for best defenseman, Matt Toarmina notched his third point of the post-season on the tally.
Syracuse carried the lead and the momentum into the locker-room but the second period would spell trouble for the home team. St. John’s took advantage of a Crunch penalty kill that essentially lost an defender due to a broken stick. Zach Redmond took a Charles Hudon pass and one-timed it high over the blocker of a screened Mike McKenna.
A mere 28 seconds later, Stefan Matteau scored his second goal of the series to tie the game at two after being sprung on a breakaway by IceCaps captain Max Friberg.
“Goals go in. It’s hockey,” McKenna said of the two quick St. John’s goals. “Whether they go in 28 seconds apart or 25 minutes apart, it can happen at any time. You just can’t let it bother you. You’re not going to shutout every game, those are rare, so you just try and focus on the next save.”
Focus on the next save is exactly what veteran net-minder did as he was stellar down the stretch making a total of 26 saves and earning first star of the game honors.
He would need help though and Byron Froese was there to answer the call and wrap this one up with a bow. At the 16:05 mark, Froese corralled an errant pass, entered the zone, out-waited a defender, and deposited the puck into the top left corner of the cage.
“That’s his bread and butter,” Crunch head coach Ben Groulx said of Froese’s goal. “He’s not only a shooter, he’s a guy that can bring a 200 foot game and I thought he was solid tonight.”
The 3-to-2 lead would be all Syracuse would need to secure the victory and send a loud War Memorial crowd home happy.
“A Wednesday night and we had this place nearly packed and that’s a credit to all of our fans,” McKenna said. “I’ve always loved playing in the War Memorial before I came here this year and to be part of this and the playoffs, I can’t wait for Friday.”
Syracuse and St. John’s are back at it for game 4 on Friday at 7pm.